Commercial 5G networks are finally available in China. The stand-out feature? Not the super-fast speeds, but the prices.

The cheapest 5G option in China is just 128 yuan, or US$18. That’s the price of dinner at an inexpensive restaurant, or a nicer sit-down place if you’re in China.

Commercial 5G networks are now live in China for as little as US$18. (Picture: Imaginechina)

This cheap package belongs to China Mobile, one of China’s three state-owned carriers, which also include China Unicom and China Telecom. They all launched their 5G plans on Friday.

The US$18 plan is significantly less than what consumers in the US can expect to pay for 5G. But there’s one big caveat: Chinese carriers are charging according to both data consumption and speed. 

That China Mobile plan will get you 30GB of data -- pretty great by US standards -- but at a maximum speed of 300Mbps. That’s certainly better than China’s average 4G speeds of 25Mbps, but it’s a far cry from the much-touted 5G speeds going as high as 1GB/s.

To get these kinds of speeds, 5G subscribers in China will have to shell out at least 239 yuan (US$34) on China Unicom or China Telecom. The most expensive 5G plans rival prices in the US at 599 yuan (US$85).

That’s about what people in the US can expect to pay. Sprint offers 5G starting at US$80 while and Verizon offers 5G with an unlimited data package starting at US$85 -- 5G is officially a US$10 add-on with Verizon, but the fee is currently waived. AT&T just has 5G available with a US$90 business line right now. 

T-Mobile is at least more reasonable, offering 5G with any data package, starting at at US$30. But of course you need a 5G phone to enjoy that perk, and you’ll have to find somewhere T-Mobile actually has 5G coverage -- which isn’t that many places.

High prices and lack of coverage haven’t made 5G very appealing in the US yet. But China saw more than 10 million subscribers pre-register for 5G service.

However, it seems US$18 is still too much for many Chinese users. In an online poll on the microblogging site Weibo, more than 180,000 people voted that the new 5G plans were too expensive.

Along with the 5G data plans, Chinese smartphone manufacturers are also putting out 5G phones, including Huawei’s Mate 30. (Picture:Michael Dalder/Reuters)

That’s because prices for mobile plans in China have been steadily dropping for years. At least one 4G plan with 1GB of data costs just US$8 a month. A report from the China Internet Network Information Center showed mobile internet fees have dropped a whopping 90% over the last five years.

US consumers, on the other hand, still pay some of the highest prices for mobile data in the world, and it doesn’t look like 5G will change that.

Pushed by the government, 5G has been one area in which China has claimed supremacy over global rivals. It has spent an estimated US$217 billion on 5G development, according to a March report by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).

Current projections show the investment is paying off. China now has 86,000 5G base stations and expects to have 600 million 5G users by 2025, which could be about 40% of all 5G users in the world, according to a forecast by GSMA. 

Experts believe that this will help the country be more involved in developing 5G standards. And for tech companies like Huawei and ZTE, which have been facing mounting pressure from the US, it could also help push sales of 5G equipment.